by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PASADENA, Calif. — He was running for them all, for this Michigan team and for every Michigan team that had come out here and had its face smeared with California egg. Someone grabbed his feet. He broke free. Someone wrapped around his thigh. He yanked loose. Running through the linemen and through the linebackers and through the hands and arms and bodies, breaking free as the ghosts of Wolverines past screamed in a collective “GO! GO! NEVER STOP!”

Leroy Hoard was going downfield and he was taking Michigan with him. A 61-yard run that was going to ensure a victory for the Wolverines in this house of horrors. And when he took the ball in several plays later, dived over the goal line on a gutsy fourth-and-goal call for the winning touchdown, final score 22-14, and the Michigan fans showered the field with plastic seat cushions — “SIT ON IT, USC!” — well, you could hear the sigh of relief from Michigan history all the way out here.

Wake up and smell the roses, U-M. This was not only a great Michigan win, a great comeback, and a tribute to the spirit of a team that had to come back from the very first game of the season — but it was also long overdue. Bo Schembechler has bought too many good teams out here too many times and gone home empty.

Not this time. Here, against the No. 5 team in the country, with Mr. Charisma, Rodney Peete, at quarterback, the Wolverines did it the way they have all year, as a team. A suddenly choking defense. A suddenly gambling offense.

Oh yeah. And a little rumble through the jungle by Hoard.

And when the gun sounded, they banded together for one final team effort: carrying Schembechler off on their shoulders.

Happy new year.

Smell the roses. Let the coach savor his win

“ON BEHALF OF SOME GREAT WOLVERINES, I ACCEPT THIS TROPHY!” yelled Schembechler when they handed him the victors’ trophy. And why not? He suffered through seven Rose Bowl defeats. Let him savor this.

And savor he will. Did you watch this one? Who says it wasn’t better than the “national championship” Fiesta Bowl across the TV dial. Here was a game that ran the gamut of emotion.

It was hardly a U-M victory from the opening gun. The halftime score was 14-3, USC, and the Michigan offense had fallen into a deep sleep. The Wolverines failed to gain a first down in the second quarter. They were getting beaten up, and beaten down. Peete had scrambled through their arms twice for touchdowns. The jokes were hatching again. Good ol’ Michigan. Just can’t beat the Pac-10.

And then, the second half.

It was as if all the voices from Wolverines past joined in a singular chorus that screamed “No more! Enough of this embarrassment!” And suddenly the 1988 Wolverines began to rise, from the mountain of dirt on their Rose Bowl reputation, from their size deficiency against Pac-10 teams, from the unforgivable errors they had committed earlier in the game, rising above all that to the slippery ghost, victory. What a way to kick off year

How nice a way to start 1989. Everyone knew what this game meant. For the Wolverines, the Rose Bowl, in the Schembechler era, has been the equivalent of the principal’s office — very rarely did they exit with good news.

How long has Schembechler been at this? Long enough that one of his assistants in his first Rose Bowl (1970) was now coaching against him across the sidelines. Larry Smith, USC’s head man, once babysat for Schembechler’s kids, once shared a house with Bo, once scouted teams for him and coached his offensive line. In this case, familiarity did not breed contempt, only competition. Smith wanted to beat Schembechler the way every student wants, just once, to topple his teacher. And Schembechler didn’t want to be shown up by a guy he once bossed around. Lord. That can make a guy feel old.

On top of that, here were two teams that, in their heart of hearts, felt they deserved perhaps more than roses, they deserved a national championship. A pass here, a fumble there. Michigan had lost only to the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the nation, by a total of three points, under freakish circumstances. USC, meanwhile, had battled Notre Dame for the No. 1 ranking right up to the final game of the regular season, when the Irish clubbed them, 27-10. You can’t argue with the score. But how often have the Trojans replayed that one bad Saturday in their minds?

And, as if that wasn’t similarity enough, both teams were carrying a Pasadena grudge. One year ago, USC had fallen to Michigan State, 20-17, in this very stadium. The year before that, Michigan had lost to Arizona State, 22-15. So both were determined to redeem themselves in the Arroyo Seco.

Michigan did.

Smell the roses. Bo knew he could pull it off

“I’m sure people thought we were out of it at halftime,” said Schembechler. “But I knew we could beat this team and so did our players.”

He smiled. This bowl thing bothered him, maybe not as much as people thought, maybe more than people realized. “You know what?” he had said a few days before the game. “Maybe it’s God’s way of keeping me humble. If I had won all the games I did, and all these bowl games as well, I’d be too cocky. This sort of keeps my ego down.”

A good theory. But you can bet he would cash it in for a victory here or there. Those annual January flights home from California meant more than a return from sunshine to winter for Bo; they meant another year’s worth of ribbing and teasing. Sure, no single joke is enough to bother a man like Schembechler. But an endless stream of them, night after night at banquets, interviews, meetings — hey, you wouldn’t like it, either.

New year. New result.

Now true, this was not the greatest Michigan team ever taken out here, but it was good. The defense was a concern. Offense was the strength, leading the Big Ten in rushing, while committing the fewest turnovers in the nation. It averaged 30.8 points per game.

The defense had been good but not spectacular, with an embarrassing letdown against Ohio State in the second half.

But on Monday, in the second half, it suddenly found new life. It shut down USC’s rushing attack, wrapped its arms around everybody with the ball, and finally managed to catch the speedball at quarterback, Peete. It sacked Peete for a loss, then forced him out of the pocket and knocked the ball out for a fumble.

And finally, in the last desperation drive by USC, it came up with the biggest turnover of all. John Milligan stepped in front of a Peete pass, picked it off, and the Michigan sideline exploded.

The hex is over. Let the new era begin.

Wake up and smell the roses. CUTLINE: University of Michigan’s Wolverines mob Chris Calloway, who caught a six-yard pass for a touchdown Monday in the third quarter of U-M’s 22-14 Rose Bowl victory over the University of Southern California.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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